A life in ruins

A life in ruins: Angkor Wat temple

We find life in ruins. That may seem like an oxymoron since ruined buildings usually denote death, decay and the absence of human existence. In most cases, the only life found in such places comes in the form of plants and animals that reclaim what humans once made their own.

A life in ruins: Front of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

But life is more than breath. And in the forgotten and fading remains of wood, stone or concrete fragments, we discover another kind of life in ruins: our own.

A life in ruins: Angkor Wat

Last time (as well as the photos here) used examples from San Juan de Dios hospital in Granada, Nicaragua and the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia to explore five reasons why ruins fascinate us.  But here’s the main explanation, at least to me, as to why we’re intrigued with the broken-down and crumbling:

Ruins are beautiful. They speak to us in ways we can’t always comprehend and they tell us a deeper story.

A life in ruins: Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

We may find the cobwebs, debris, small animals and flora emerging from the ancient walls to be curious – even, in some cases, disturbing – but the stonework, the carvings, the details and craftsmanship of those walls? These are works of art. Works that survive because they were well-made of materials meant to last. Such work and the ruins themselves touch us and move us in the way only beauty or affliction can, for they represent elements of both.

Angkor Wat monkeys

The beauty of ruins, however, is very different than the beauty of the original buildings. Visit other temples in Cambodia or Asia or visit other hospitals in Central America. Some are lovely, but many can feel decorative. Overdone. Even (to our Western sensibilities) a bit tacky. But when time and weather have their way with these places, what’s left are the elemental forms. The aesthetics of structure and support. The colors of decay: rusts, grays and gritty pastels. In the end, what remains is the character of the place.

A life in ruins: Hospital doorway - Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

And so it is with us. Ruins remind us that when you strip away all our superficialities, what remains is our own character. That can be a simple wreck. A collection of fallen, broken pieces. The remnants of what we strove to be but never quite pulled off.

Or, our characters can reflect the real us. The core of who we are beyond our faded pretenses, poses and props. The depths of our true selves, something of great wonder and beauty that people marvel at. Our characters can, in a way, reflect the summary of our lives, the end result of all the shaping of time, circumstance and choice.

Thus, in the end, it might be that ruins evoke a deeper story in, from and through us. A story of great beauty. One that reminds us that beyond what we see in the present is something far greater and much richer. One we don’t always appreciate until all else is removed and we are left only with the character.

Of a place…or of a person.

 

5 reasons why ruins fascinate us

Why do ruins fascinate us? Why do so many of us seek out the old and the antiquated, the weathered, worn and barely-still-standing?Why ruins fascinate us: the Hospital San Jaun de Dios - Granada, Nicaragua

 A tale of two ruins

The images you see here are from two recent trips. The more modern ruins above are from Antiguo Hospital San Juan de Dios in Granada, Nicaragua that I visited a few weeks ago. This old hospital was built at the end of the 19th century and has long ago fallen into disrepair. Rumors of rebuilding it as a museum seem to be merely rumors. I had been informed that guards stand outside the shell of the building to keep trespassers away. Yet when I visited, they too appear to have to have abandoned this place.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - entry

The other, more famous ruins shown here, are from my son Sumner’s trip last month to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Built in the early 12th century these temples cry out to be explored. Tomb Raider and other movies have been filmed here. As Sumner noted, visiting here makes you feel more like Indiana Jones than anywhere else he’s been.

Two very different trips. Two very different types of places. One common appeal. But what’s behind our interest in the old and run down? Why do ruins fascinate us so?

Here are some theories. Add your own in the comments section.

 Reasons why ruins fascinate us

Why ruins fascinate us: Back of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

First, we tend to romanticize the past. What came before us seems more interesting than what lies in front of us today. History and the richness of its associations sparks our imaginations. We give in to nostalgia or associations with symbols from the past in ways we may not even realize or admit.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - sunrise

Second, we live in a culture of perceived impermanence, transience veiled under the guise of mobility. Thus, we gravitate toward representatives of permanence or at least the rootedness we find in old buildings that have lasted for decades, centuries or even millennia.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Facade of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

Third, we appreciate a level of skill, craftsmanship and materials we rarely see today. Unless you’re an eccentric millionaire, you’re not likely to build a castle or cathedral. So we marvel at works of splendor that last for generations beyond the life of the builders.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Carved faces at Angkor Wat

Fourth, I think we’re drawn to ruins because they remind us of our own condition. Let’s face it: deep down we’re all wrecks. Ruins remind us that there is something of value and magnificence even in our brokenness and in those places that are falling apart.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Doorway of Hospital San Juan de Dios, Granada, Nicaragua

Fifth, ruins also may remind us that we are mortal. In college I worked at Disneyland. There they told us a story about the building of the park. Apparently Walt Disney hired a psychologist to guide the design of the various “lands.” One suggestion Walt followed was to construct Skull Rock from Peter Pan and put this universal symbol of death (the skull) right in the middle of Fantasyland. The reasoning went that people would feel even happier when they saw the skull because they would subconsciously have a sense of overcoming death. So perhaps we like ruins for similar reasons: We encounter them and witness their crumbling facades and broken walls. And yet we emerge from them as vibrant as when we entered.

 

Why ruins fascinate us: Angkor Wat - courtyard work

Beyond these five reasons, one other remains as to why ruins fascinate us. To me, it’s the most important and thus deserves its own entry. So join me next time for the main reason ruins fascinate us. And in the meantime, please share below your own thoughts on the subject.